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The orchardist, p.15
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       The Orchardist, p.15

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The girl drew back her head, puzzled.

  No, she said, breaking into laughter. Go on!

  Caroline Middey smiled too, despite herself. How strange it all was—the girl was right—and how strange it must be to hear it for the first time.

  There is a lot more to it, warned Caroline Middey. And I will explain it all to you one day. But a young girl like yourself does not need to know too much. It doesn’t do to know—or be thinking about such things—right away.

  There was a silence.

  And so a whore does it for money, prompted Angelene. How much money?

  Caroline Middey pursed her lips.

  Goodness, child!

  Angelene pulled back, impressed and surprised that with that question she could have rattled the woman who was so often hard to move.

  I don’t know, said Caroline Middey. But I will tell you this: it’s not something that women, most women, like to speak of, if they’re doing it, or they know someone who is. It’s not—accepted, mostly. She paused briefly. There are some people who see no shame in it. They treat it like a—business transaction. But then she looked at the girl, carefully.

  If Talmadge knew we were talking about this—

  But why? said Angelene, her eyes keen with interest. She had stopped working, her hands clutching the rim of the bowl. Would he be mad? But why?

  Caroline Middey was helpless.

  There are certain subjects that make some people—Talmadge especially—very uncomfortable.

  But not you, said Angelene.

  Not me, no, conceded Caroline Middey. After a brief silence, both of them working again, she said, I want you to ask me questions about this kind of thing—don’t go around asking anybody else.

  Angelene, apparently satisfied, absorbed in her work again, said without hesitation: All right.

  But it did not occur to Caroline Middey until later, after the girl had gone to sleep—in the room with the hanging herbs; Talmadge slept on a cot in the kitchen—that the girl, in order to have asked the question, must have heard the word somewhere. Caroline Middey was going to make inquiries, but upon seeing the girl in the morning, face freshly washed, coming to her with a hairbrush, asking Caroline Middey to braid her hair, she could not bring herself to ask. If the girl was troubled, thought Caroline Middey, then she already knew enough to come to her.

  But still Caroline Middey was bothered. What had the girl heard? What was she thinking?

  On the way back to the orchard, riding in the back of the wagon, Angelene’s mind was washed clean of worry. The girl at the fair had called her a whore’s girl—but very clearly she was mistaken, or she was talking about somebody else. For Angelene did not know any whores.

  How long had Della been in the wilderness, this time? Had she gone into the forest because she was ill, or had she become ill because she was in the forest? Each succeeding day ate away at her memory, and after a length of time had passed—a week? a month? two months?—she was unsure of the events of her life leading to that moment. One morning she woke and could not remember her name. Dolly? Annie? Annie was the name they gave to girls who would not reveal their true names, at Michaelson’s camp . . .

  Days transpired. Somehow she was able to sleep outdoors in the cold. She had stolen a buffalo rug. Laughed, not remembering where it came from. Lay whole days under it, feverish. The fever let out some of the old grief. She called Jane’s name, or thought she did. Remembered her children, who had not been fully formed, who had died. And how was she still alive? How was that possible?

  She dreamed of Talmadge, that he was cooking her food. He told her to pick which closed fist, and she picked one, and he turned his hand and opened his palm: there was an apricot stone. She reached for it, and it disappeared.

  In the morning, angry, airy with hunger, she crawled from beneath the blanket and staggered to a road she must have known about, for she went directly to it. Made her way to town.

  The fever was over. She would eat, find a horse—her own horse she entered the forest with had disappeared—and then find work.

  In the schoolhouse north of Cashmere, along the river, Angelene sat near the window that looked out onto a large cottonwood. She drew courage from that tree, which seemed to have been planted there for the sole purpose of being her friend.

  She was very scared in the beginning—the air smelled of chalk and cold, and the voices of the other children were sharp as needles, and intrusive—but that passed.

  History was baffling to her. There seemed to be too much of it. She preferred geography, was struck by the idea that there could be different landscapes from the one in which she lived. After a lesson on photosynthesis, she drew diagrams in the small notebook Talmadge had given her, and regarded these drawings often, improving upon them, thinking: And this is how it works: sun, soil, sugar, water . . . She could not wait to tell Talmadge about it.

  The other chief love—and how similar it was to science, and how different—was reading. As soon as she realized the figures on the page meant something—could be strung together as words, and then sentences, and then paragraphs—she was covetous of the whole system. It seemed a new universe to her. And it was. Everything opened up. Some stories were meant to inform, and others were meant to entertain. And then other stories were separate from those—this the young teacher did not tell her, it was something Angelene figured out on her own, the first year, when a man visited and read them a poem out of a tome of poems—that seemed crafted to relay some secret, and even more than that, some secret about herself. Angelene was mesmerized. What was available for her to know? What secrets did the world hold? Which secrets would be revealed through the soil, and which through words?

  In the spring of 1911 Della traveled with an outfit of men from Pendleton, Oregon, into the Sawtooths. These were not Clee’s men—she had found jobs traveling with other men, in other outfits that would accept her. The outfits, like this one, would usually have to be short a few men to agree to take her on; but even so, despite the general wariness to include her, she had been around some all-right types in the last few years. That is to say, she had been with men who more or less left her alone.

  This group in the Sawtooths she had been traveling with for a week. They were hunting horses in the high ranges. Some of the men had wanted that morning to return down the mountain, saying they had got enough horses to satisfy the boss, but it had been discussed among them all and finally decided that they would keep at it, go up into some other peaks, another two days, at least, to search for more horses. Otherwise, the hunt, the whole enterprise, would have more or less failed. They had promised the boss more horses than they had captured thus far. But it was hard going; it was May, and yet it had snowed the day before last, in the early morning. These men were among the roughest she had traveled with—loud at night, careless with their words and hands. One or two had touched her, but nobody had outright abused her, and so she stayed. Wanted to stick it out, for the payment, of course, but there were also the horses to think about, the great hunting in the days to come.

  After a week of traveling they came into a camp in the late afternoon, just before dusk. Some men began to prepare their evening meals while others went to the river to wash. It was a valley high in the range, and as the sun went down, the snow-covered peaks in the distance glowed. In the valley there was a deep hush, and the noises the men and horses made were tinny in comparison. The entire valley wrapped around them and blanketed them in distance.

  Della did not go with the men to wash, and neither did she light a fire right away. She sat on her bedroll and looked out over the valley darkening. And where would she go, what would she do? Ate a loaf-end of bread, incredibly tough, she had found in her saddlebag. Her hands dark with filth. The sweat, as it dried on her body, chilled her. When darkness came the men sat in their camp below—she sat uphill from them, a few yards off—eating and guffawing. Some of
the men were still sore about going up into the mountains; any moment that might turn into something else. She was constantly attuned to the noise of the men, the different pitches that would mean that they were talking about women, they were talking about her. The men were tired and lonely, they were angry.

  She lit a fire, and heated some beans. As she waited, a form separated from the camp below, and moved uphill. He took only a few steps before he paused and then returned to the camp. That’s right, she thought. That’s right. Her arm was steady as she transferred the can of beans, which she handled with a mitt, between her knees. Tentatively began to eat them. Watched the camp. She burned her mouth, and cursed. When she’d finished eating, she scoured the empty can with a rag from her kit and then put the can in her saddlebag. Stomped out the fire. Lay down on her bedroll.

  Her eyes closed, she listened to the men. They had begun to drink. She listened to them even as she slept. Even though her hand rested on the hilt of the unsheathed hunting knife under her pillow, she was not afraid. She knew what to listen for, and the atmosphere wasn’t right for them to come for her. It was close, but still not right. It was not close enough that she would not be able to sleep. Tomorrow she would have to reevaluate the situation. But tonight she could rest.

  What did you learn? Talmadge asked Angelene, when she was back in the orchard. She stayed with Caroline Middey three days out of the week now, because it was too far to travel from the orchard to the schoolhouse and back every day. They sat at the table, eating, and Angelene told him all that she could remember. The dates of battles of the Revolutionary War, some times tables, why there was so much ash in the soil. After supper she studied at the table while Talmadge sat in the chair in the corner, looking at his almanacs. Sometimes he looked at them only a short time before getting up and going outside, to do what, perhaps walk in the orchard. He sometimes did that if it was getting close to a heavy work time, or if he was upset by something, or if his food wasn’t digesting properly. Often when he passed by her he would touch her head, as if to say, Keep going, I’ll be right outside, you keep studying. There was a sort of tender pride there that made her feel as if she was doing something important, something that pleased him deeply.

  Della and the men hunted a new peak, and the hunting was good. The men, despite the fact that they had drunk a lot the night before, seemed focused. They were quiet among themselves, and hunting the horses, all as one body, had been a kind of dance. It was one of the best days of hunting by far. And yet when they came into the place where they would bed down for the night, along a creek, the birches bending thick over them, although the men were quieter and more aloof than the previous night, she knew it was not right. She got as far as unrolling her bedroll and getting out her can of beans when she knew she would not even be able to prepare supper. The men weren’t even looking at her. As usual, some of them had started their fires, and the others went down to the water to wash. She led her horse a little ways off, under the pretense that she was going to let him wade deep enough to bathe. She just kept walking. Nobody came after her. She walked until she could not hear the men behind her anymore, and the forest mended in silence behind her. They would wonder about her, they would even search for her, and they would hate her for it. But she had no choice. She could feel the old familiar feeling, waiting under the canopy of trees. It had fit her like a glove, and she was certain in her soul she had been there before. She had had to escape her own fate.

  She knew, roughly, where she was. She would not be able to travel very far that night, but she would rise before the sun and make her way down the mountain again. She knew where the men were traveling, and she would give them a wide berth. That night, when she bedded down, despite the fact that she knew she had escaped abuse, she was afraid. At times this roving, sharp-edged fear found her. She told herself that she would be all right. She could not see the stars; the trees were too thick overhead. She listened for her horse in the dark, called to it.

  The silence and darkness of the forest were extraordinary.

  And the next day, just as it was beginning to get dark,” Angelene read aloud, “he went to the tower and called out: Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair. The hair fell down, and the prince climbed up. At first Rapunzel was—terribly frightened—when a man such as she had never seen before came in to her. However, the prince began talking to her in a very friendly manner, telling her that his heart had been so—touched—by her singing that he could have no peace until he had seen her in person. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him as her husband, she thought, ‘He would rather have me than would—Frau Gothel.’ She said yes and placed her hand into his . . .”

  Angelene stopped reading and looked at Talmadge, who lay sleeping in the horsehair chair, his mouth hanging open, the newspaper collapsed on his lap. He had wanted her to read to him—What’s this book you’ve been toting around? If it’s so good, read me a bit of it—but he had become drowsy as soon as she had started reading, and then had fallen asleep.

  She read a little further, quietly, to herself, and then after a minute got up from the floor, where she had been cuddled in a nest of cushions and blankets, and went to the small mirror over the basin, and looked at herself. The long face, the dark eyebrows, the careful, pensive mouth. Who was she? she thought. Was she beautiful? Was she strong?

  It took Della two days to travel down the mountain. The day after that she reached the town where the boss for the outfit she had recently abandoned lived. She did not know what she was going to say to him, but when she reached the building she stood outside the door, on the platform, with the sun beating down on her head. As she hesitated outside, a man walked out of the office and passed her and then a moment later he looked at her again and his face changed. She also had turned to look at him, but then quickly turned forward. It was one of the men she had been traveling with, but he was washed and clean-shaven and she had not recognized him right away. His face was twisting itself in an effort to accuse her.

  But she had begun to walk down the street, quickly.

  She would not be able to land a job working in an outfit easily after that, and so she decided to head westward, where she had heard there was a call for women working in canning factories along the coast.

  But she was hungry and could not make it to the coast without money in her pocket. She debated whether to sell her horse, but decided not to. What was she, without her horse? She got a job picking cherries instead, in the Yakima Valley, to tide her over. She was hired easily, along with other workers and local townspeople, and when one orchard was finished she was hired on at another. She saw many of the same people among jobs. She saw, even, some of the men, here and there, who traveled with Clee, who had worked at times in the orchard up in Peshastin. They did not say anything to each other, however, but their eyes met once or twice through the foliage.

  When Angelene stayed with Caroline Middey, she was expected to help with the chores the same way she was expected to in the orchard. There were chores she performed at Caroline Middey’s that were the same as those in the orchard, and there were those that were distinct. Because of the relationship Angelene had with Talmadge, and with Caroline Middey—each relationship was unique and yet at the same time shared many qualities—there was never any chiding involved, or threats, or even raised voices. Angelene did as she was asked, and although at times she was distracted and perhaps sloppy, she did not resent her chores, she was mostly eager to perform them, and had no argument with what was expected of her. That was why it was surprising when one morning, after Caroline Middey had worked several hours outdoors in her garden, waiting for Angelene, who did not arrive, the older woman found the girl indoors, still in bed.

  When Caroline Middey opened the door to the bedroom, the girl burrowed under the covers.

  What’s this? said Caroline Middey. There was a silence, and then the girl said, in a voice high with apology: I think I’ll
just stay in bed today, if that’s all right. I mean—I’ll be staying here for a bit, is all. I’m just going to stay here—

  What’s wrong? Are you sick?

  No—

  Come out from under there, I can’t hear you.

  The girl hesitated, and then came out slowly. And burst into tears.

  What’s wrong?

  I don’t know. Nothing. I just don’t want to do anything today, I just want to lie here for a bit, I have to think—

  Caroline Middey stood looking at her.

  Angelene soon went back under the covers. She heard Caroline Middey leave the room, and thought that was the end of it. She, Caroline Middey, would go work in the garden, and Angelene would either be pulled out there by guilt, or she would manage to remain in bed for however long she wanted—but how long was that? How was she ever going to think properly, this way, if she was guilty? But one thing was certain: it was too late for Talmadge not to hear about it. With this, she was filled with dread and shame, and burrowed deeper beneath the covers.

  But Caroline Middey did not go out into the garden. She came back into the room several minutes later, hatless and shoeless, changed into her housedress. She carried toast on a plate, and coffee.

  Scoot over, she said, and Angelene, who had come out from under the covers again, moved over, and Caroline Middey got into the bed beside her. The mattress creaked.

  Angelene accepted the toast and coffee, bashfully. Caroline Middey ate as well, the blankets pulled over her lap. She chewed thoughtfully, glancing out the high window. The ivy out there had to be trimmed.

  Now, what’s this about?

  Angelene’s mouth trembled, and she had to replace the toast on the plate. She looked gravely down at her lap.

  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

 
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